JEDDAH, 27 June 2006 - India's Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed is passionate about India's relations with the Arab world. Ever since he became a member of the current government led by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, he has worked meticulously on improving ties with this part of the world and has been successful in undoing the damage caused by the previous government to India's traditional relationship with the Arabs. During the Bharatiya Janata Party's tenure, India veered closer to Israel, much to the chagrin of the country's traditional allies. India currently enjoys excellent relations with the Arab world and especially with Saudi Arabia. The visit of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to India early this year was the high point of this growing relationship.
Ahamed is a grass-roots politician. He is now the general secretary of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which was, until recently, part of the power structure in the south Indian state of Kerala. The party suffered a humiliating defeat in the recent assembly elections, leading to a reshuffle of the party's office-bearers. As the party's general secretary, Ahamed is now faced with the great responsibility of reorganizing and rejuvenating it.
IUML fought the last parliamentary elections in alliance with the centrist Congress Party, defeating the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee. Congress President Sonia Gandhi acknowledged IUML's role in defeating the BJP and offered the party a berth in the federal Cabinet, which is how Ahamed became the minister of state for external affairs. He has surprised his critics with an excellent performance and was rated by India's newsmagazines among the best performing ministers.
Ahamed was in Saudi Arabia on an official visit last week. As is normal with all politicians from Kerala, he was nearly overwhelmed with requests to meet dozens of community members in Jeddah. But he did find time to talk to Arab News on some foreign policy issues.
So what does he have to say about India's candidature for the United Nations secretary-general's post? Ahamed is cautiously optimistic. "Our candidate, Shashi Tharoor, is the most qualified. He is undersecretary-general of the United Nations. He has vast experience. He is a very acceptable man - by his nature, by his stature, by his experience and by his knowledge."
According to Ahamed, India's vibrant democracy, multireligious, multiethnic and pluralistic society and India's involvement in the regional associations and international peacekeeping efforts should work in its favor. "India is playing a key role and contributing to world peace and we are sponsoring a candidate because this time, the top post is reserved for a person from Asia. Our candidate is the best candidate."
Of course, there is no doubting Tharoor's credentials. He has proved to be an excellent administrator and is an excellent writer with a large following. He is seen as one of the most successful Indians and his columns in Indian newspapers are obligatory reading for people in power and for scholars as well. But does he have a real chance of success? "He has a fair chance of success," said Ahamed. "It is not easy, however. It is a tough task. Still, we have hopes that he will succeed."
Just half an hour before Arab News sat down with him for the interview, Ahamed was talking enthusiastically about the good relations between India and Pakistan. If that is the case, why is Pakistan opposing Tharoor's candidacy? Is India talking to Pakistan to rally it around Tharoor's candidacy - even perhaps through back-channel diplomacy?
"If it is (back-channel diplomacy), then I don't want to talk about it," Ahamed remarked. "Each country has its own approach and is entitled to it. It is Pakistan's sovereign right to have its own line. My question is, 'When a candidate is being projected by India, then why is Pakistan also projecting its own candidate?'"
The issue of Palestine is very close to Ahamed's heart. The moment the discussion turns to Palestine, he perks up and mentions Sept. 17, 2004. He remembers that day vividly. "It was on this day that I met Yasser Arafat ... to reiterate our commitment to the people of Palestine."
India, according to Ahamed, has always called for an independent and viable Palestinian state, living in peace with other countries. "It is the Palestinians' right to have their own homeland. Let them have their own state, their own country. India is committed to their cause. Ours is an unwavering stand on that. And it is not something that we decided today. Our stand vis-a-vis Palestine has its roots in our own independence struggle. The international injustice done to the people of Palestine has to be undone. India will always be happy to involve itself in whatever is best for the people of Palestine."
What about Hamas? "Hamas is the democratic choice of the people of Palestine and we respect their decision," Ahamed said. "But we always feel that the people of Palestine must have a united stand. The unity of the people of Palestine is most important for their progress, their stability."
Now that Ahamed is tasked with the responsibility for reviving his party, what does he think is the biggest challenge? "The Indian Union Muslim League is very strong and very vibrant despite our failure in the recent assembly elections. It is a temporary setback. It will not affect us," he asserted. "We will carry out our historic responsibility toward the Muslim community, toward Indian democracy and toward Indian secularism."